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Mahayana ethics and American Buddhism: subtle solutions or creative perversions?


Sandra Bell begins her exciting chapter on "Scandals in Emerging Western Buddhism" in Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia with a reference to a meeting of twenty-two Western Dharma teachers with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in the spring of 1993. They gathered to discuss the problems involved in the transmission of the Buddhadharma from East to West, and particularly those focusing on the role and ethical responsibilities of spiritual teachers. The results of that important meeting were captured in a stirring video called "In the Spirit of Free Inquiry: The Dalai Lama in Conversation with Western Buddhist Teachers," produced by Meridian Trust and published by Parallax Press. Clearly, the most significant portions of that video are those that focus on sexual ethics and sexism, with penetrating questions and discussion offered by Tenzin Palmo, Sylvia Wetzel, Martine Batchelor, and other women participants. Bell frames the discussion by declaring early in the chapter:

   In contemporary Britain and North America, Buddhists are most
   likely to be well-educated, white, middle-class folk of liberal
   persuasion who display permissive attitudes toward their teachers'
   eccentric behavior and minor indiscretions. But events have shown
   that tolerance breaks down when teachers make persistent use of the
   power they wield over their followers to obtain material goods and
   sexual favors. I will argue that scandals resulting from this kind
   of conduct by teachers are most likely to occur in organizations
   that are in transition between the pure forms of charismatic
   authority that brought them into being and more rational, corporate
   forms of organization.

Bell chooses to focus on two particular American Buddhist communities, the San Francisco Zen Center and Shambhala International (which was previously known as Vajradhatu and Nalanda Foundation). She doesn't choose them because they are the worst representations of misconduct, but rather because she was able to fully investigate each.

Early in my career I also had the good fortune to visit and spend significant time at each of these Buddhist communities. In 1974 I was invited to teach Sanskrit, and in 1975 a module on Indian Buddhism, at the then-called Naropa Institute (more recently, it has changed its name to Naropa University). During the academic year 1978-79, I spent my first academic sabbatical in Berkeley, California researching American Buddhist communities in the Bay Area. As such, the San Francisco Zen Center was just a short drive from my home base at the Graduate Theological Union. In each case, these highly influential and popular Buddhist communities were in the midst of serious difficulties surrounding the above mentioned behavior of their Buddhist teachers, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche in the former case and Richard Baker, Roshi in the latter.

My style of doing fieldwork research has changed very little in the more than thirty years that has passed since those initial forays into American Buddhist communities. Then and now, I try to be invisible. Instead of appearing as a credentialed Buddhological researcher, filled with questions, inquiries, and opinions, I simply appear and watch, as often as possible. At Naropa Institute, this was quite easy, as I had very few Sanskrit students in 1974, and not many more in my Indian Buddhism module in 1975. I was known to my Buddhological colleagues Reginald Ray, Janice Nattier, and Larry Mermelstein--and of course to Trungpa Rinpoche--but not to many others in the Vajradhatu/Nalanda Foundation community. This gave me immense flexibility and access to lectures, meditation sessions, discussions, parties, and general "hanging out." Years later, in San Francisco, I was even less visible; and I doubt that anyone in the SFZC community even knew I had attended events, meditation occasions, or Dharma lectures. My first book on American Buddhism had just been published, and probably was not read by many (if any) community members, and certainly they would not have known me from my quiet work on Indian Buddhist monasticism and sectarianism. At SFZC I was invisible, again able to see the community in its raw essence.

Much has been written about these teachers and communities, so I need not spend time here rehearsing the details. The legends are known throughout American Buddhist sanghas and in the emerging subdiscipline in Buddhist Studies devoted to the development of Western Buddhism. Indeed, references can be found in Richard Seager's excellent book Buddhism in America, James Coleman's The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition, my own Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, or any of the fine anthologies now in print. However, an earthier prose description of these circumstances appears in the more popular literature, such as Stephen Butterfield's volume The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journal into Buddhist Tantra or Michael Downing's Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. Some of the descriptions are incredibly direct. Nancy Steinbeck, wife of John Steinbeck IV, for example, recalls:

   As Rinpoche's drinking increased, we began to see holes in
   the fabric of our devotion. During a seminar that summer,
   Rinpoche was so drunk during his evening talks that several
   guards had to haul him on and off the stage. One
   night all he could say was "Be kind to each other. Please
   be kind to each other" over and over. It was horrible to
   see him so inebriated, but it was even more chilling to
   watch the sycophantic fawning of his henchmen. (176)

Not everyone--me included--sees things in this light. Rita Gross commented in 1998 that, "To me, the ideological fixation and conventional moralism of those who insist that teachers' sexual misconduct is an overriding concern sends up red flags. More than anything else, their self-righteousness and moral rigidity make me more suspicious and wary" (242). Gross goes on: "... It cannot be claimed that a sexual relationship between a spiritual teacher and a student must be inappropriate and exploitative, though under certain conditions such a relationship might be exploitative and inappropriate" (244). Given the importance of the issue of teacher impropriety, and the notoriety of the so-called scandals in American Buddhism, perhaps it is sensible to explore some of the ethical issues and imperatives of Mahayana Buddhism in hopes of determining whether some consensus can be reached regarding various behaviors in these American Buddhist communities.

Mahayana Ethics

If we acknowledge that the most general and consistent treatment of ethics in Buddhism is revealed by its expositions on sila, rather than Vinaya (Prebish Text 49-68), then it also becomes critical for an accurate understanding of Buddhist ethics to ask the question clearly put by Winston King as early as 1964: "What is the relation of ethics to the total structure of Buddhist doctrine and practice, particularly with regard to the definition of moral values, their metaphysical status if any, and the nature of ultimate sanctions" (v). The traditional way of expressing King's question considers the relationship between the three aspects of the eightfold path of early Buddhism, slla, samddhi, and prajha, and their connection to nirvana. Damien Keown, in The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, reviews several longstanding notions on how these soteriological elements relate (8-23). Keown first cites the most common view that s la leads to samadhi which leads to prajha, and that prajha is identified with nirvana. In this context, the ethical concerns expressed by s la are at best subsidiary to the others, and are generally thought to be transcended with the attainment of nirvana. Secondly, it may be argued that ethical enterprise may facilitate enlightenment, and following the attainment of nirvana, once again become operative. Thirdly, ethics and knowledge (i.e., prajha) may both be present in the attainment of the final goal. About his review Keown concludes:

   The three possibilities outlined above represent very different
   visions of the role of ethics in the Buddhist soteriological
   programme. In the first two cases, which I have
   bracketed together, ethics is extrinsic to nibbana, dispensable,
   and subsidiary to panna. In the third it is intrinsic to
   nibbana, essential, and equal in value to panna. (10-11)

Although the prevailing viewpoint in Buddhist scholarship has tended toward a utilitarian conclusion on the issue of sila, especially with regard to Theravada studies, and despite the contrariness of Mahayana-based testimony, an ever-increasing volume of new scholarship has rejected the so-called "transcendency thesis," in favor of a more valued role for those practices collected under the categorical term sila. (2) In so doing, it becomes possible to consider those principles categorized as sila collectively, as a synthetic reflection of both nikaya Buddhism and Mahayana, and perhaps to at least reconsider, and at most dispel, such notions as sila representing a purely mundane goal, largely considered as the highest pursuit for the laity, and practiced by monks and nuns only as a preparation for samadhi.

Many years ago, Lal Mani Joshi concluded from the Buddha's personal example that, "His love of solitude and silence was matched only by his universal compassion towards the suffering creatures. Hinayana seems to have laid emphasis on the former while Mahayana on the latter aspect of the Buddha's personality and ideal" (91). Such an approach lead Joshi and others to identify the ethical approach of the Buddhist nikayas as narrower and more limited in scope than Mahayana. About Mahayana, Joshi remarks, "Its aim is higher, its outlook broader, and its aspiration more sublime than that of Hinayana" (93). One should not read Joshi's evaluation too aggressively, or as a rejection of the earlier understanding of sila, but rather as what Keown aptly calls a "paradigm shift" (130). This paradigm shift is of course reflected by the Mahayana emphasis on the bodhisattva ideal.

Nalinaksha Dutt, in his still important Aspects of Mahayana Buddhism and Its Relation to Hinayana, notes that the Chinese pilgrim Yi Jing "who was chiefly interested in the Vinaya, remarks that the Mahayanists had no Vinaya of their own and that theirs was the same as that of the Hinayanists" (290). Dutt, however, goes on to list a large number of Mahayana sutras that deal with ethical issues, including the Bodhisattvacaryanirdesa, Bodhisattva-pratimoksa-sutra, Bhiksu Vinaya, Akasagarbhasutra, Upalipariprccha-sutra, Ugradattapariprccha-sutra, Ratnamegha-sutra, and Ratnarasi-sutra (290-291). Of these, the Bodhisattva-pratimoksa-sutra and the Upalipariprccha-sutra are clearly the best known. The former was edited by Dutt and published in Indian Historical Quarterly, 7 (1931), pp. 259-286, but to my knowledge, has never been translated into English. It is a sutra only in name, comprised primarily of fragments taken from the Upalipariprccha-sutra and the Bodhisattvabhumi (Dutt Bodhisattva Pratimoksa 261). Nonetheless, it is not a code of monastic rules for bodhisattvas, as its name implies, but rather a general ethical guide for both lay and monastic bodhisattvas. The Upalipariprccha-sutra has benefitted from the fine scholarly translation of Pierre Python. (3)

There is little doubt that at least three major texts form the basis of Mahayana ethics: the (1) (Mahayana) Brahmajala-sutra, an apocryphal Chinese work, (4) (2) Siksasamuccaya of Santideva, and (3) Bodhicaryavatara of Santideva. The Siksasamuccaya was of sufficient importance to prompt Joshi to state, "The fundamental principle of Mahayana morality is expressed in the first verse of the Siksasamuccaya: 'When to myself as to my fellow-beings, fear and pain are hateful, what justification is there that I protect my own self and not others?'" (93). Structurally, the text is organized into three parts, beginning with twenty-seven karikas outlining the ethical ideal of the bodhisattva. A second part offers an extensive commentary on these verses, with the third part offering a huge compendium of supporting quotations from additional Buddhist texts. Taken collectively, its three parts form a comprehensive statement on bodhisattva ethics. The Bodhicaryavatara is possibly the best known Mahayana text associated with the conduct of the bodhisattva. It is arranged in ten chapters, five of which address the paramitas, but with mindfulness (smrti) and awareness (samprajanya) substituted for the traditional dana and sila. This does not mean to say that the s la-paramita is omitted, for Chapter V, Verse 11 mentions it by name (Matics 163). Specifically ethical concerns are also considered in Chapter II, known as "Papa-desana" or "Confession of Evil." Overall, an incredible breadth and scope of ethical issues are considered.

Curiously, it is not from these famous Mahayana ethical texts alone that we find the key that unlocks the major emphasis of bodhisattva conduct. Two further texts are critically important here: the Mahayanasamgraha and the Bodhisattvabhumi, and it is on the basis of their evidence that many authors, Buddhist and otherwise, have advanced the theory of the superiority of Mahayana ethics over that of nikaya Buddhism. In fact, the tenth or "ethical" chapter of the Bodhisattvabhumi was the focus of a complete translation and study by Mark Tatz titled The Complete Bodhisattva: Asanga's Chapter on Ethics with the Commentary by Tsong-kha-pa.

Keown, in The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (135-157), provides an extremely careful exposition of the argument. The Mahayanasamgraha suggests that Mahayana morality is superior to Hinayana in four ways: (1) in its classifications (prabheda-visesa), (2) in its common and separate rules (sadharana-asadharana-siksavsesa), (3) in breadth (vaipulya-visesa), and (4) in depth (gambh rya-visesa). The first category is the most important of the four since it supports the other three, and is itself composed of three sections: (a) morality as temperance (samvara-sila), (b) morality as the pursuit of good (kusala-dharma-samgrahaka-sila), and (c) morality as altruism (sattva-artha-kriya-s la) (Keown 137-138). The threefold categorization of morality as temperance, the pursuit of good, and altruism is further developed by the Bodhisattvabhumi, concluding that it is the element of altruism that enables Mahayana morality to surpass its nikaya Buddhist counterpart. The extreme importance of the issue of altruism in asserting the superiority of Mahayana ethics has not gone unnoticed by modern Theravadins. Walpola Rahula, for example, says,

   The bhikkhu is not a selfish, cowardly individual thinking
   only of his happiness and salvation, unmindful of whatever
   happens to the rest of humanity. A true bhikkhu is an altruistic,
   heroic person who considers others' happiness
   more than his own. He, like the Bodhisattva Sumedha, will
   renounce his own nirvana for the sake of others. Buddhism
   is built upon service to others. (126)

Other Theravadin authors echo Rahula's sentiment. (5) Regarding the specific conduct of bodhisattvas, the Bodhisattvabhumi postulates a code having fifty-two rules, of which only the first four are categorized (as parajayika-sthaniya-dharma) and a number of which allow the violation of (some of) the ten good paths of action. The second category explores the differentiation between serious and minor offenses, emphasizing that while both bodhisattvas and iravakas are enjoined to observe all the major rules of conduct, bodhisattvas may breach minor matters of deportment while iravakas may not. Of course the circumstances under which a bodhisattva may engage in this kind of behavior are also stated. The third category is essentially a summary. Finally, the fourth category is the most innovative, focusing on the notion of skill-in-means (upayakausalya) in relation to Mahayana ethics.

In the fourth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara, one reads, "The son of the Conqueror, having grasped the Thought of Enlightenment firmly, must make every effort, constantly and alertly, not to transgress the discipline (iiksa)" (Matics 44). In the next chapter: "Thus enlightened, one ought to be constantly active for the sake of others. Even that which generally is forbidden is allowed to the one who understands the work of compassion" (Matics 169). How can these two conflicting views appear in the same text, and in such close proximity? The answer lies in a proper understanding of upaya-kausalya and its role in Mahayana ethics: it is a theme that permeates Santideva's writings. Throughout the eighth chapter of the Siksasamauccaya on "Purification from Sin" (Papasodhanam), citations abound, especially from the Upalipariprccha-sutra and the Upayakausalya-sutra, in which ethical transgressions are allowed and sanctioned in the name of skill-in-means (Bendall and Rouse 157-174). Keown concludes from all these examples "that the freedom allowed to a bodhisattva is enormous and a wide spectrum of activities are permitted to him, even to the extent of taking life" (154). He goes on, however, to say:

   When actions of these kinds are performed there are usually two
   provisos which must be satisfied: (a) that the prohibited action
   will conduce to the greater good of those beings directly affected
   by it; and (b) that the action is performed on the basis of perfect
   knowledge (prajha) or perfect compassion (karuna). (154)

The relationship between sila and prajha in Mahayana is thus parallel to that noted above with respect to nikaya Buddhism in which it is remarked that "the two fuse in the transformation of the entire personality in the existential realisation of selflessness" (Keown 111-112). What seems not to be parallel is that the nikaya Buddhist adept is at no time allowed to breach the practice of proper morality while the Mahayana bodhisattva may, under certain circumstances invariably linked to altruistic activities and based on karuna, upaya-kausalya, and prajha, transcend conventional morality. G.S.P. Misra, for example, notices that, "In the Bodhisattvabhumi we find an enumeration of the circumstances under which a Bodhisattva may justifiably commit transgressions of the moral precepts; the governing factor, however, is always compassion and a desire to save others from sinful acts (137). The above passages notwithstanding, parallel references can be also found (Matics 158) emphasizing a strict observance of the precepts for bodhisattvas. As a result, we find ourselves confused over the apparent incongruity in the textual accounts of Mahayana ethical conduct, and wondering just how breaches of conventional ethical behavior are sanctioned.

The solution emerges from the postulation of two uniquely different types of upaya-kausalya. About the first, which he categorizes as normative ethics and calls [upaya.sub.1], Keown says:

   [Upaya.sub.1] does not enjoin laxity in moral practice but rather
   the greater recognition of the needs and interests of others.
   One's moral practice is now for the benefit of oneself
   and others by means of example. Through its emphasis on
   karuna the Mahayana gave full recognition to the value of
   ethical perfection, making it explicit that ethics and insight
   were of equal importance for a bodhisattva. (159).

The second type of upaya has nothing to do with normative ethics or ordinary individuals. It is the province of those who have already perfected ethics and insight. Thus:

... it is the upaya of bodhisattvas of the seventh stage (upaya-kausalya-bhumi) and beyond, whose powers and perfections are supernatural. [Upaya.sub.2] is depicted as an activity of the Buddhas and Great Bodhisattvas (BodhisattvaMahasattvas) and it is only they who have the knowledge and power to use it. It is by virtue of [upaya.sub.2] that bodhisattvas transgress the precepts from motives of compassion and are said to do no wrong . (Keown 157)

There can be little doubt that [upaya.sub.2] is not the model by which ordinary beings perfect themselves but rather the pragmatic moral outcome of the attainment of the seventh stage of the bodhisattva path. Upaya2 is the social expression of a genuine understanding of the notion of emptiness (sunyata) in which no precepts can even be theorized. It is emphasized throughout the Mahayana literature on emptiness, but nowhere as eloquently as in the discourse between Vimalakirti and Upali in the third chapter of the Vimalakirtinirdesa-sutra:

Reverend Upali, all things are without production, destruction, and duration, like magical illusions, clouds, and lightning; all things are evanescent, not remaining even for an instant; all things are like dreams, hallucinations, and unreal visions; all things are like the reflection of the moon in water and like a mirror-image; they are born of mental construction. Those who know this are called the true upholders of the discipline, and those disciplined in that way are indeed well disciplined. (Thurman 31)

As such, it represents the far extreme of the ethical continuum, a Buddhist situation ethics established not simply on love, as in Fletcher's system, but on the highest and most profound manifestation of compassion.

Having concluded in the above pages that sila is operative throughout the individual's progress on the nikaya Buddhist path, even after the attainment of prajna, and that the same claim can be made for Mahayana, enhanced by the altruistic utilization of [upaya.sub.1] up to the attainment of the seventh bodhisattva stage, after which [upaya.sub.2] becomes operative, albeit in rather antinomian fashion, it now becomes important to address the issue of whether textually based Buddhist ethics can be truly current; whether an ethical tradition solidly grounded on the textual heritage can serve as the foundational basis for a socially engaged Buddhism, effective in addressing the complex concerns cited in the growing literature on the subject.

The relative vitality of Buddhist ethics in today's world is a concern that cannot be minimized. Indeed, Kosho Mizutani, in the Prologue to Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society asserts, "I submit that a study of Buddhism that emphasizes its ethical aspects will be the most important task facing Buddhists in the twenty-first century" (Fu and Wawrytko 7). Studies abound stressing the difficulties of living effectively in a postmodern society that is becoming increasingly pluralistic and secular. This dilemma is further exacerbated for Buddhists in that "Buddhists today face the question not only of how to relate to other religions, but also how to relate to other forms of Buddhism from different traditions" (Chappell 355).

Modern Applications

In 1987, Rick Fields delivered a paper on "The Future of American Buddhism" to a conference entitled "Buddhism and Christianity: Toward the Human Future," held at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Although case specific to the American Buddhist situation, Fields concluded his presentation with a sketch of eight features that he felt would be critical in the on-going development of American Buddhism. All eight points were directly or indirectly related to issues of Buddhist ethics, prompting Fields to comment: "The Bodhisattva notions of direct involvement in the world will tend to overshadow tendencies towards renunciation and withdrawal. Buddhist ethics, as reflected in the precepts, the paramitas, and the Bodhisattva vow, will be applied to the specific problems of day-to-day living in contemporary urban North America" (26). It is difficult to consider Fields' words, and those of similar, likeminded individuals such as the contributors to works in the genre of The Path of Compassion edited by Fred Eppsteiner without feeling much sympathy for the predicament facing Buddhists in Asia and America as they try to confront ethical dilemmas directly.

In an interesting article, drawing heavily on the work of fairly recent biblical scholarship, Harold Coward points out that:

   The relationship between a religious community and its
   scripture is complex, reciprocal and usually central to the
   normative self-definition of a religion. The awareness of
   this relationship is the result of postmodern approaches
   that no longer see scriptures as museum pieces for historical
   critical analysis, but recognize them to be the products
   of human perception and interaction--both in their
   own time and in today's study by scholars. (129)

The problem of precisely how ethical guidelines can be appropriately reinterpreted in the context of changing times and cultures was confronted early on in Buddhist religious history. By including only the presumed words of Buddha, referred to as Buddhavacana, within a closed canon, nikaya Buddhism in general and Theravada in particular made a clear statement about the relationship of community and scripture in the early tradition. Mahayana chose the opposite approach. As Coward points out: "Rather than closing off the canon as the Theravada school had done, Mahayana maintained an open approach and added to the 'remembered words' of Ananda new sutras such as the Prajhaparamita Sutras and the Lotus Sutra" (142). This openness allowed Buddhists the occasion to utilize Buddha's own approach in transmitting the substance of his teaching if not his exact words. Robinson and Johnson point this out clearly in The Buddhist Religion: "Both strictness in preserving the essential kernel and liberty to expand, vary, and embellish the expression characterize Buddhist attitudes through the ages toward not only texts but also art, ritual, discipline, and doctrine. The perennial difficulty lies in distinguishing the kernel from its embodiment" (39).

The openness in creating new scripture emphasized by Mahayana, and the utilization of an on-going commentarial tradition, as fostered by earlier Buddhism, conjointly provide the potential for a profoundly current Buddhist ethics that is also textually grounded. Such an approach is solidly in keeping with the program outlined by Charles Weihsun Fu (in a slightly different context). Fu says, "The Buddhist view of ethics and morality must be presented in the context of open discussion in a free and democratic forum" (327). To be successful, it requires that:

   A philosophical reinterpetation of the Middle Way of
   paramartha-satya/samvrti-satya must be undertaken so that
   the original gap between these two can be firmly bridged,
   thereby accomplishing the task of constructive modernization
   of Buddhist ethics and morality. On the theoretical
   level, a new ethical theory based on the Middle Way of
   paramartha-satya/samvrti-satya can meet the challenge of
   modern times.... (327)

In the context of the "free discussion" noted above, Sandra Bell highlights in some detail the ethical dilemmas experienced by the two communities she highlights. Regarding Chogyam Trungpa, she notes,

   Chogyam Trungpa was surrounded by an inner circle
   whose members took a vow not to discuss his behavior,
   although it was openly acknowledged that he had sexual
   relations with a number of his female disciples. The disciples
   were also unrestrained in their sexual liaisons, believing
   that sexual jealousy indicated a failure to grasp Chogyam
   Trungpa's teachings. (233)

Trungpa's successor, Thomas Rich (given the Tibetan name Osel Tendzin), appointed in 1976, carried on Trungpa's tradition of antinomian behaviors, eventually dying of AIDS. In San Francisco, Richard Baker Roshi, Shunryu Suzuki's one Dharma heir, took over authority of SFZC in 1971, eventually accumulating enormous power and authority. As he presumably misused this authority, escalating problems began to occur in the community. In 1983, a spring meeting of the board of directors of SFZC resulted in Baker Roshi taking an indefinite leave of absence. The center's journal Windbell describes the situation candidly: "The precipitating event which brought this about was his [Baker's] relationship with a married resident woman student, and the upset which this caused for those principally involved, and for others in the community who knew about it" (2). This was especially problematic because, according to Bell, "Baker had previously told students that although Zen practice did not involve celibacy for priests and laypeople, a person's sexual conduct should not deceive or harm others, while a teacher's behavior should be exemplary. The respected teacher appeared to have broken his own precepts" (235-236). The turmoil eventually resulted in the production of a statement called "Ethical principles and Procedures for Grievance and Reconciliation," which the SFZC board of directors adopted in 1996.

Bell tries to summarize the ethical dilemmas, and their potential solutions in a number of ways. First, she notes that,

   Many Buddhist movements in the West, including those
   described here, were founded during the second half of
   the twentieth century by charismatic leaders, assisted by
   an initially small group of devoted followers. It is typical
   that as a movement expands this group evolves into an
   inner circle, "a charismatic aristocracy" that stands between
   the growing membership and the leader. Increased
   numbers of students mean that over time certain members
   of the inner circle also become meditation teachers
   and candidates for succession to the leadership. The
   founder, as in the current examples, may nominate a successor
   who, in adopting the mantle of charismatic authority,
   becomes remote from the other members of the inner
   circle who were once his peers. This happened to Richard
   Baker and to Osel Tendzin. (238)

Second, she goes on to say:

   It may be that as Buddhist organizations mature and move
   slowly away from charismatic leadership toward rationalized
   and democratically structured models of authority--what
   Gordon Melton has described as broad leadership--there
   will be fewer events like those that occurred at Zen
   Center and Vajradhatu during the 1980s. Melton has proposed
   that corporate structures, imposed for tax purposes
   within new religious movements in the United States,
   have given "new religious groups an additional stability
   that no single leader could bequeath." (239)

Finally, Bell is not unaware of the complex relationship that exists between Buddhist teachers and their students, one that expresses a comprehensive intimacy that is sometimes fraught with what she refers to as "romantic and erotic overtones." Some aspects of this additionally complicating factor were explored by Katy Butler more than two decades ago who argued, with reference to SFZC, that senior students "strove to outdo each other for approval of their insight" (120). Nonetheless, Bell and most other researchers continue to see this as an ongoing ethical dilemma, breaches of which violate the Buddhadharma and endanger the developing Western Buddhist tradition. The issue has become sufficiently important that David Van Biema, in a Time magazine story said, about the American Buddhist community, "Beginning in 1983 the community discovered to its horror that a probably majority of U.S. teachers, both foreign-born and American, had abused their authority by sleeping with students." He goes on: "The result, in many schools, was a radical democratization, with leadership often subdivided to prevent abuse, and even a certain amount of government by consensus" (80).


So where does this leave us? Are there any alternative modes of interpretation that might clarify the seemingly inappropriate behaviors of several of the prominent Buddhist teachers? Can we utilize the Mahayana textual tradition cited above to shed new light on a difficult circumstance? Are these circumstances really as dire as these popular sources suggest?

One highly vocal, and contrary, voice has been that of Rita Gross, known best for her influential book Buddhism After Patriarchy. In her important chapter "Helping the Iron Bird Fly: Western Buddhist Women and Issues of Authority in the Late 1990s," published in The Faces of Buddhism in America, she moves in a new direction, squarely confronting the issue of presumed ethical misconduct. She frames her unusual position around two major issues: (1) What a spiritual teacher is not; and (2) whether "women should not or cannot consent to certain kinds of sexual activities if they also want to function as self determining adults" (241). Gross sees the spiritual teacher as neither an authority on all issues nor a religious therapist. Gross argues that,

   Because the guru is not an all-wise absolute authority and
   the student is not a needy, immature person in need of
   fixing up by such an authority, it cannot be claimed that a
   sexual relationship between a spiritual teacher and a student
   must be inappropriate and exploitative, though under
   certain conditions such a relationship might be exploitative
   and inappropriate. Such a relationship could also be
   mutual and mutually enriching, and in some cases surely
   is, as has been attested by some women I know. (244)

In other words, Gross sees women as moral agents rather than victims. From her feminist stance, Gross focuses significantly on the role of women students in American Buddhist communities. However, might it not also be argued, in light of the above discussion of Mahayana ethics in general, and the theory of two highly different forms of upaya, that many of the sexual and other behaviors of teachers like Chogyam Trungpa and others were not ethical misconduct at all, but a proper application of an ethical tradition that recognized the human manifestation of highly realized bodhisattvas?

If the relationship between sila and prajna is, as we have seen, that "the two fuse in the transformation of the entire personality in the existential realization of selflessness," then it would be possible to argue that seemingly inappropriate acts of various American Buddhist teachers are really a manifestation of karuna, applied through the vehicle of a perfectly subtle but absolutely reasonable use of upaya. Yet, as is textually made explicit in texts such as the Bodhicaryavatara, Siksasamuccaya, Upalipariprccha-sutra, and others, these actions are not reflective of the normative ethics of [upaya.sub.1], which requires application of the normative pattern of Mahayana ethics in which all the precepts must be observed, but rather [upaya.sub.2], available only to bodhisattvas of the seventh stage and beyond, in which case these highly accomplished beings may transgress any of the precepts in their pursuit of helping to liberate all beings. As noted above, such actions "are the social expression of a genuine understanding of emptiness (sunyata) in which no precepts can even be theorized." No doubt, this suggestion represents the far extreme of the Buddhist ethical continuum, but it could serve as a highly subtle expression of Mahayana ethics utilized by American Buddhist teachers having attained precisely that realization that their students have assumed on their part. Gross seems to affirm this position when she says,

   I want to suggest that those who adamantly condemn
   sexual relationships between spiritual teachers and their
   students are overly reliant on conventional morality, especially
   conventional sexual ethics, which are often erotophobic
   and repressive ... There are simply too many
   examples of outstanding people, including religious
   teachers, who engage in unconventional behavior to assume
   that adherence to conventional sexual morality is
   any safe guide to judging people's worth. (246)

This does not mean to say that all Buddhist teachers who act in ways that seemingly violate Buddhist ethical precepts are seventh stage (or beyond) bodhisattvas, and certainly those who are not would invariably be bound by the guidelines of upaya (1) which require the keen observance of all ethical precepts. Nonetheless, in light of the above, we can at least infer that applied in the proper fashion, by accomplished teachers, the activities allowed by upaya (2) do present a possibly subtle solution and explanation of seemingly inappropriate behaviors. On the other hand, if abused by less than realized beings, we must recognize these acts as merely creative perversions of a noble ethical heritage.


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Charles S. Prebish

Pennsylvania State University & Utah State University (Emeritus)

Charles S. Prebish (1)

(1) 2465 Circleville Road, Unit 137, State College, Pennsylvania 16803. E-mail: This article (although formatted differently) was previously published in Destroying Mara Forever: Buddhist Ethics Essays in Honor of Damien Keown, edited by John Powers and Charles S. Prebish, 95-111. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2009.

(2) Here I have in mind especially the work of Harvey Aronson, Love and Sympathy in Theravada Buddhism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980), and Nathan Katz, Buddhist Images of Human Perfection (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982).

(3) See Pierre Python (tr.). Vinaya-Viniscaya-Upali-Pariprccha (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1973), which offers Tibetan (with Sanskrit fragments) and Chinese text along with a French translation of the Chinese (taken from Taisho 310, 325, 326, and 1582). Python notes on page 1 that the Sanskrit fragments are taken from Dutt's edition of the Bodhisattva-pratimoksa-sutra. Python's text is an entirely different text than Valentina Stache-Rosen (tr.), Upalipariprcchasutra: Ein Text zur buddhistischen Ordensdisziplin (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984), which offers a translation from Chinese (Taisho 1466) with parallels to the Pali.

(4) On this issue see, for example, James R. Ware, "Notes on the Fan Wang Ching," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 1, 1 (April, 1936), 156-161. Paul Groner makes a similar case in his article in Robert E. Buswell, Jr. (ed.), Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 251ff.

(5) See, for example, the essays included in Swearer, Donald K. (ed.). Me and Mine: Selected Essays of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.
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Title Annotation:Special 20th Anniversary Issue
Author:Prebish, Charles S.
Publication:Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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